MMO: Work-life research indicates more married fathers are spending more time with children than ever before. Perhaps the more pressing question in the minds of married mothers is: Do men do housework?
Andrea Doucet: Isn't that the million-dollar question! Unfortunately, it doesn't have a simple answer. We know from time-use studies that fathers in most countries are increasing their contributions to housework. We also know that much of this increase is accounted for by childcare-related activities, and less in routine housework. It is also important to note that housework is a very large and amorphous category of work, which includes subjective elements, overlaps with leisure and personal preferences and which varies enormously within households depending on number of children, size of home, and size of income. What I can say from my interviews with over 100 fathers and with 14 heterosexual couples is that fathers did not speak much about housework and, in their individual interviews it was nearly impossible to get a clear picture of what was being done and how often. Nevertheless, I can say a few things:
First, the way that I got people to talk about housework was through something I call the "Household Portrait Technique" which is really a game that I devised to encourage couples to visualize and talk together about who-does-what and why in their households. I used this technique/game/data collection method with the 14 couples that I interviewed. The couple would go through the little pieces of paper that were, in turn, set up around color-coded categories of housework and childcare as well as kin work, household maintenance work, budgeting, and overall domestic responsibilities. Then they put these little colored papers, each indicating a task, in columns that were marked as: Mainly Man; Mainly Man with Woman Helping; Shared Equally; Mainly Woman with Man Helping; Mainly Woman. It was actually quite a good way to get men and women to talk together about what are still very taken-for-granted and invisible areas of work and activity.
This interview technique prompted a lot of discussion, disagreement and cajoling at times ("give me that piece of paper" or "I do that more than you do"). An example might help to illuminate this point. While Theo told me, in his individual interview, that he did all of the laundry his wife Paulina laughed when she heard this and insisted that it was shared "Excuse me, but we share the laundry dear." Theo, in fact, agreed with her after they had discussed the different aspects of doing laundry, (doing it, folding it, putting it away) and how it did count that she did it on the weekend whereas he did it more during the week. Meanwhile Martin told me that as far as the housework was concerned "I basically do it all" whereas in their joint interview, it was clear that Denise also did her fair share of housework.
A second point that I want to make about housework is that it seemed to be a sensitive issue within some households. For example, one father recalled when the house was continually untidy over the year that he stayed at home and how his wife would get up in the middle of the night and vacuum, partly as a coping mechanism, partly as a bit of a protest.
Finally, it is important to note there were some gendered variation in household standards. There were certainly some fathers who were, as one father Kyle put it, "fanatical about cleaning" and there were a few fathers who, as confirmed in the couple interviews, had higher standards than their wives or partners. Yet overall, there was a strong sense that housework was a secondary concern for most fathers. Many fathers noted that playing with the kids or homework always takes priority over housework. As many family researchers have noted, these differing standards in domestic labor can cause tension in a relationship. It can also lead to women taking on more of the work and possible resentment coming from this.
I did also find that in households with stay-at-home fathers, and full-time working mothers, many of the women started out with higher standards of housework but these become modified, not only with the arrival of children, but with their return to paid work. In a few cases where income was available, housecleaning services were used to alleviate conflict over housework standards.
As for specific findings on men and housework, I can say that while there was great diversity between households, in the majority of households men still took on traditional masculine tasks of household maintenance, construction, plumbing and electrical and issues dealing with the car. Women did more of the laundry -- especially folding it and putting it away -- and men did more of the cooking during the week while women took on more weekend cooking. Women did more of the reading to children, homework help, creative play and board games while men did more physical play, outdoors activities and sports. With the exception of one father of three Gary, who "loved buying greeting cards," the card and gift-buying fell mainly to women, because women generally seem to place greater value on birthdays and anniversaries. In one household, for example, Denise reminded Martin that his mother's birthday was coming up because, as she said: "I think I have a better memory than he does for those things." Women almost exclusively bought children's clothes while men purchased more of the shoes and boots. Women did more of the vocal or expressed worry while some men were adamant that they did indeed worry, but more quietly.
A final note on men and housework is that I did find was that most men seem to be less focused on housekeeping and more on household maintenance and renovations. Moreover, they put playing with children and getting outdoors with the children ahead of household chores. I think this is related to several issues: differing social expectations about men, women and domestic space; men's resolve to differentiate their parenting from that of women; their intent to instill an active and physical approach to caregiving; and men's desire to enact their parenting in what felt like a more "masculine" style.